No More Ducking Ducting!

Yesterday I did something I have wanted to do ever since I bashed my head in the basement for the first time 9 years ago. This is my last week of work before I’m laid off for the summer and my job will be all house all the time. I’m looking forward to that.

Hat for cobwebs, mask for dust and gloves because ew! cobwebs and dust!
Hat for cobwebs, mask for dust and gloves because ew! cobwebs and dust!

Being 185cm (6’1″) tall, when I stand to full height down here I already have to fit my head between two floor joists (and get a nice lot of cobwebs in my hair) but the beams that hold the joists up are lower still and the large hot air ducts are lower than that. The ducts sound the worst when you hit your head on them–it’s a loud boom that makes the whole house wince–but the beams hurt more with their dull thud. My dad still has his old bike helmet here that he used whenever he was working on our basement with us. Smart man, my dad.

As you may have heard, we’re going to dig the basement deeper and get some reasonable ceiling height down here. We’re also doing that to improve the foundation, seal and insulate properly, and put some hydronic heating pipes into the basement floor concrete while we’re at it. Might as well, right?

If all goes well, the house will be so much more efficient, that we won’t need something so clumsy as a forced air furnace to blow warm air through great big ducts anymore. We will need to circulate air, but those ducts can be a lot smaller. In fact, I’m hoping to re-use the smaller round ducting that I took out yesterday as the main trunks of a Heat Recovery Ventilation system.

But enough talk! Here’s what it looks like to rip out ducting that has been in a house since the 30s or earlier. (You may want to refer back to this post to see the video I took after we cleaned the junk out.)

First, the trunk that supplied air to the dining and living rooms:

Duct down!
Duct down!

Next, looking east toward the back of the house and the hot water heater (you can see the hole in the furnace that fed the trunk I just removed). The big rectangular duct, heading away from the camera, supplied heat to the back end–the bathroom, kitchen and bedroom and, with the help of a new duct that Dave the father-in-law helped us add, the kids bedrooms on the third floor. We really didn’t expect to be changing this system so soon.

The square duct on the right and the sheet metal that is simply nailed to the joists are part of the air return system. There were large wooden grates in the dining room and hallway heading up to the third floor that would supply the furnace with air, which originally burned sawdust and later oil. There was little concern over bringing in fresh air from the outside because the house was so drafty–no danger of carbon monoxide poisoning!

When we had the chance to restore the wood work in the dining and living rooms, I realised that we would not need an air return after the retrofit, so we covered over the grates and let the furnace collect its air from the basement.

Maybe I should have unplugged the furnace, but it’s been turned off for over a year. It’s a lot less intimidating without it’s crown of ducting (and it’s still for sale, by the way).

An unused heat register in 2008
An unused heat register in 2008

On the other side of the furnace–the North side–a less elaborate air-supply duct system collected air from the hallway that leads to the stairs that lead to the third floor. Like the other side, it once also supplied heat to those beautiful old registers along the baseboards of the main floor rooms. That was back when the sawdust furnace burned and the heat rose up without the help of an electric fan. It seems crazy to me that there was no metal lining to keep the joists and ceiling from catching fire, but maybe there was some system to prevent this back then.


Meanwhile, the long duct to the rear bites its own dust! Ha ha ha!

Looking east toward the back of the house and the new duct that heated the kids bedrooms...a bit.
Looking east toward the back of the house and the new duct that heated the kids bedrooms…a bit.


At last, here is what our basement ceiling looks like without a forced air ducting system. This will make a difference to the ceiling height of the new basement. When you improve the envelope of your home enough, you can start doing away with standard necessities and start saving space as well as energy and money.
DSCN2670If you would like to look around the whole house, I am looking at future tour dates so please comment with what date works for you and maybe we can make it happen!

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James Rowley

James lives in Maple Ridge, BC, Canada with his amazing partner, Leanne Koehn, and their two amazing kids in their beautiful house. He studied Science and English Literature at the University of British Columbia where he met Leanne. He also studied acting for a while at Studio 58 in Vancouver. He works as a teacher of English and curriculum writer for new Canadians.

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